Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Quality Over Quantity, Especially as You Get Older

I recently went to Guam with the wife and kid to spend Christmas on the island. It was a wonderful one week. I will write about the actual vacation later on probably this week.

Left: No. Right: Yes!

When the vacation ended, on the flight back to Japan, on a US carrier that claims to be "a premium airlines"... I noticed that all the flight attendants were male and, well, unattractive... They were all older men, as a matter of fact. I'd guess our main cabin attendant was at least 55-years-old, had all white hair and a beard and was about 50 pounds overweight. It wasn't pleasant at all and, pardon my sexist tendencies, but I'd prefer to see a charming young lady or even a charming young man as our cabin attendant. (Caveat: I don't think seeing overweight older women attendants is pleasant either - we had those on the flight to Guam.)

I don't want to see a fat old man, especially several of them, servicing our flight. I know that idiotic US labor laws and unionization of the work place have made an environment whereby older people are "protected" but I actually think that, in many ways, this is bad for business. And when it's bad for business, it's bad for all employees, not just one. I wonder how making the user experience less satisfying helps with sales? Follow that train of thought with how decreasing sales can be good for anyone.

Like I said, these kinds of labor laws and unionization have greatly helped to hurt western businesses. Protecting people due to seniority is a very bad idea (Japan used to do this at the office place - bad enough. But when dealing with the public do you hire beautiful people or old and fat people?) When people feel protected by a group, rather than their own good efforts at being their best, then their work quality drops, and they become lazy. Do you need proof of this?  Just go to any US Postal Service office anywhere in America anytime of the day and you can see a prime example of this.

Image is everything in business today. There isn't a person alive who would prefer flying an airline that has old and overweight flight attendants over an airline that has young and beautiful people handing customer service. Because that's what flight attendants are: customer service. When union rules or protecting the rights of the individual take precedence over the total welfare of the company (read: all employees) then there is a definite problem.

This girl is a real stewardess for a China based carrier
Her name is Sun Qing.
That's what they're supposed to look like.

That, for example, Asian carriers do not have to deal with this sort of union rules and can hire pretty stewardesses or handsome stewards shows that they understand that image and perceptions are crucially important and that those perceptions of the customer and customer comfort comes first. That's one of the big reasons for the success of these airlines.

Some western airlines still "get it"

But I digress. This is not a post about idiotic labor rules in the west. It is a post about committing yourself to quality over quantity as you get older (that includes looks too if you are a flight attendant, stewardess, waitress, in customer relations at a private firm, on TV, etc. etc.)

I used to ride the very early morning train into Tokyo a few years back. There, everyday, I met an older German gentleman. His name was Karl, he was 65-years-old, and he was the head chef for all the Westin Hotels in all of Asia. He was in Japan at the time to help set up the in-house restaurants and catering for the new Westin Hotel just built near Ebisu station in Tokyo. Even though Karl was 65, he was an extremely friendly and energetic guy. Karl was running up the stairs full speed to catch the connecting train every morning until I showed him an easier way. I'm a nice guy like that!

Karl and I would ride the train together and he had many good stories to tell about his job. I love talking with people and by letting them talk, I get to learn many things. Karl was so enthusiastic about his job. Even though he was head chef, his area of true expertise was in making pastries. He'd often tell me about having to make several hundred pies, tarts or cakes... The part that always surprised me was how he would go into details about costs and time spent per unit of pie. I'd ask about making soups or roasting large birds, and Karl would always say the same thing,

"We have to carefully calculate the costs of gas and electricity for cooking and preparation time in order to judge if it is economical to create the dish for several hundred guests. Everything must be calculated down to the last penny to make sure that we don't run over costs."

Hell, that really surprised me. Whenever I roast a turkey at home, I just open a bottle of wine, start drinking and fire up the oven without a care in the world. Calculating the cost of the gas and electricity in order to roast the bird?! I wouldn't even know where to begin.

Karl had cooking down to a science.

Karl also had great advice for work as he mentioned to me that he was about to retire. He said, 

"Mike, as you get older, you must always be concerned with these costs, but you must mostly be concerned with having your name associated with quality. When we are young, there are many in our same field of work. But as we get older, the field of people doing our job narrows down to just a few..."

I asked him how many people in the world there were like him and he told me that there were only three like him who knew how to go into a country and set up a large hotel and organize the entire kitchen, room, service, restaurants, bars and train the staff and set up the accounting procedures for all food and drink related services. Wow! Think about that! Only three guys in the entire world and, of course, they all know each other...

Karl continued,

"That's is why, Mike, as you get older, you must concentrate on quality and delivering the best. If you decide to concentrate on quantity, you will lose. Because when it comes to a quantity issue, then you start dealing with lower quality... You will not be able to beat a younger competitor... You will not be able to beat a McDonald's."

I've always remembered what Karl told me. That's why I want to do quality work and not half-assed work.

Now, think about that. How does this relate to our 55-year-old flight attendant? Who is happy with that? I'm sure the customers aren't. And if the customers aren't, then I imagine that translates into a lower repeat and customer loyalty and return customer base... Hell, think about that poor guy too. Do you think he is happy being a flight attendant for 30 some years? I don't.

He should have moved up to management of flight attendants long ago. But he didn't... His just so-so service also gave me a hint as to why he didn't climb the ladder long ago. To give an example, I was wearing a headband made from the leaf of a palm tree given to me by a local and I was on a flight from Guam and the guy said to me,

"What's that? Is that headband some sort of religious item?" I smiled and  said, "no!" but thought, 

"Duh! What's it look like? We're on a flight from Guam. You know; Guam. It's a south seas tropical Pacific island. As in palm and banana trees, beaches, sand, sunsets, local people... This isn't rocket science. If we were returning from Hawaii would he ask me what the flowers around my neck were?"

Anyway, the point is clear: As we get older the thing that sets us apart from the rest is our experience gained. If we do not use this experience to better our game all the while doing as energetic a job as a youngster would do, then we are setting ourselves up for a bad situation.

Remember folks, when it comes to your personal branding: Quality beats quantity any day.


EXTRA: Rory Sutherland: Life lessons from an ad man - Thanks to diego.a


Kevin Riley said...

I don't fly North American airlines. Not only are their attendants lacking in eye appeal, but service is not near the quality of Asian airlines. My favourites are JAL, ANA, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Qatar, Emirates.

Mr. Nobody said...

Hello Mike,

Post 9-11, do you think there has been a downturn in cute US women flight attendants going on international flights? For the matter, how many cute American based women do you think want to do the Japan to Guam route?

In general what customer service does the USA do well, and in particular, regarding air travel?

British Airways is probably one of the worst national carriers, but they seem miles above the US domestic carriers. The question I have, is there any foreign competition on US to US flights? Like from say Dallas to Chicago, or are they monopolized by US carriers...

All the best!

mikeintokyorogers said...

Hi Mr. Nobody,
Gee those are difficult questions. I try not to fly to the USA at all. As far as post 9-11 and the ridiculous TSA BS, it is partially the airline's fault for not standing up for the rights and comfort of their customers.
Going to USA from japan, I choose ANA or Singapore. If I must fly a US carrier, I try to to go United... Delta has some serious maintenance issues... The Delta flights to Guam this time were below par too. Examples: My TV viewing system didn't work (the headphone jack was messed up inside). One toilet was closed as it over flowed. The lady next to me couldn't recline her chair. No big deal? Well, maybe so, but you'd expect better in Business Class, no?
I always use mileage to bump up to business and United's business class beats Delta by a mile...

Boo said...

Part of the issue is US flight attendants have convinced themselves that they are so much more than flying waitresses.
Not sure age has much to do with it: I've had excellent older waitresses, and horrid younger ones.
I stopped using US carriers after making the mistake of booking Beijing to Narita on one, and still being forced through extra US-only security.

diego.a said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
diego.a said...

This ad man found a way to save over $40 billion by using super-model attendants on a train.

It doesn't add anything to this conversation, other than being one more example of how value is subjective.

Marc Sheffner said...

"It's simply a matter of changing the interface by which people make decisions."
A gem. Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

Is it really bad for business? They are usually looking for the cheapest employable people who will put up with the most crap. Everything is computerized, they probably have every marketing habit of the customer computerized to the slightest detail. What people say is actual bad business, and what people's behavior actually is are two different things. Did you ever see the Michael Moore film (was it Capitalism: A love story) where they mention what they pay airline pilots? Its insane to put in the investment to be a commercial pilot for the reward and working conditions. Anyone young and attractive is going to go for the big money and easy job because they can. Your most likely the victim of Modern Business. Don't they have Virgin Airways for the real big spenders? Does Virgin Airways do Guam?